Covid-19: What to expect in 2021

The Atlantic chronicles Covid-19’s trail of destruction in the U.S. this way:

“The coronavirus pandemic ignited at the end of 2019 and blazed across 2020. … The first two surges, in the spring and summer, plateaued but never significantly subsided. The third and worst is still ongoing. … The virus now has so much momentum that more infection and death are inevitable as the second full year of the pandemic begins.”

The development of effective vaccines means “the pain could soon start to recede … every day promises to bring a little more light.” If getting the American public vaccinated goes according to plan, then by next summer, “coronavirus will still be spreading within the U.S., but at a simmer rather than this winter’s calamitous boil.” Medical experts interviewed by the Atlantic are “cautiously optimistic that the U.S. is headed for a better summer.”

But, the Atlantic says,

“they emphasized that such a world, though plausible, is not inevitable. Its realization hinges on successfully executing the most complicated vaccination program in U.S. history, on persuading a frayed and fractured nation to continue using masks and avoiding indoor crowds, on countering the growing quagmire of misinformation, and on successfully monitoring and countering changes in the virus itself.”

In other words, everything needs to go just right to get that far, and a lot of it could go wrong. For example, the government’s stated goal of vaccinating 20 million people by the end of 2020 is on track to achieve one-tenth that number (but just 3 weeks later, the government will be in more competent hands).

Even at best, the pandemic will end slowly, “with a long, protracted exhalation,” and “the horrors of 2020 will leave lasting legacies,” including a “pummeled health-care system [which] will be reeling, short-staffed, and facing new surges of people with long-haul symptoms or mental-health problems.”

Here’s what America can realistically expect in 2021 and after:

1. Vaccines

Drug companies have to make enough doses, quality control must not break down, the vaccines must be distributed and administered. All the current vaccines require two doses, precisely timed; and the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines must be kept frozen, thawed correctly, then used within hours. The U.S. has no national vaccination strategy, and depends on local distribution and administration, which in many places is underfunded. A critical number of Americans may fail or refuse to get vaccinated; “conspiracy theorists, QAnon supporters, and far-right groups believe COVID-19 to be a hoax or a nonissue, and this network, alongside traditional anti-vaccine activists, will downplay or disparage the vaccines, … some 42 percent of Republicans currently say they would refuse a vaccine.” Because of past history, many blacks also “are understandably suspicious of the vaccines and the … medical establishment,” too. On top of that, due to uneven distribution, “Just as the virus created a patchwork of infection in 2020, the vaccines will create a patchwork of immunity in 2021,” and because unvaccinated people will be in clusters, local outbreaks will still occur. And at this point, it’s unknown whether vaccinated people can transmit the virus to those who are not.

2. Closures and Restrictions

Even if the vaccination program succeeds at slowing and eventually stopping the spread of Covid-19, “Other measures such as masks, better ventilation, rapid diagnostic tests, contact tracing, physical distancing, and restrictions on indoor gatherings will still be necessary during the long rollout.” Restrictions will continue on restaurants, sporting events and other mass gatherings, and people will still be urged to stay at home and avoid social and family gatherings.

3. Political Leadership

More coherent political leadership at the top will help — vastly better organized, and one that encourages people to refrain from self-destructive (and societally destructive) behavior by promoting a sense of shared sacrifice (for example, in this video, a frustrated Michigan restaurant owner tells a local TV news reporter he’s willing to comply with restrictions, but very reasonably complains, “I can’t do it alone”).

4. Federal Funding

Throughout the pandemic, revenue-starved states have been unable to adequately fund anti-coronavirus efforts, and will continue to need federal funding to pay for things like personal protective equipment, diagnostic tests, and financial support for impacted businesses and working families. Democratic victories in the Georgia Senate runoff election on January 5 would help, because Democratic control of the Senate would end the Republican blockade on federal aid to states and local governments.

5. What Might Return

“Slowly, life will feel safer. Masks will still be common, and public spaces may be less populated. But many of the joys that 2020 stripped away could gradually (if patchily) return—the joys of indoor dining, the thrill of a crowd, the touch of a loved one. Vaccines will help us to return to normalcy … a new normal, but a very human normal.”

6. What Won’t Return to Normal

The people we’ve lost are gone. Countless small businesses won’t return. And Covid-19 is unlikely to be completely eradicted, vaccine immunity may be only temporary and have to be renewed, and Covid-19 has already begun mutating — with currently unforeseeable consequences. And the U.S. health care system has been so severely stressed by the pandemic that lingering degradation of the availability and quality of health care in the U.S. is all but inevitable. Many children have lost a year of schooling, and because minority communities have been more severely hit by Covid-19, the pandemic has exacerbated racial inequality and divisions in American society.

7. Another Blow to America Hubris

In a way, Covid-19 is America’s second Vietnam: Another humiliating defeat driving home the realization that we are not always the greatest country in the world. No country handled the pandemic as badly as we did, or suffered more. We were roundly shown up by many third world countries; ironically, among them Vietnam, whose “impeccable” response got that country off with just 1,456 cases and 35 deaths. New Zealand had 25 deaths, Laos none. It can be done. We simply didn’t do it. Instead, we stumbled into a clusterfuck; why we did, will be debated for years to come. Meanwhile, it’s not over yet, and the worst is probably still to come.

For more details, read the full Atlantic article here. Meanwhile, Newsweek predicts a “baby boost” (a sharp falloff in births) in 2021 (read that article here).


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